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Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands Hardcover – May 1, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
You would hardly think, reading Chabon's new book of essays, that he won the Pulitzer Prize for a book about comics. Rather, he is bitter and defensive about his love for genre fiction such as mysteries and comic books. Serious writers, he says, cannot venture into these genres without losing credibility. No self-respecting literary genius... would ever describe him- or herself as primarily an 'entertainer,' Chabon writes. An entertainer is a man in a sequined dinner jacket, singing 'She's a Lady' to a hall filled with women rubber-banding their underwear up onto the stage. Chabon devotes most of the essays to examining specific genres that he admires, from M.R. James's ghost stories to Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic work, The Road. The remaining handful of essays are more memoir-focused, with Chabon explaining how he came to write many of his books. Chabon casts himself as one of the few brave souls willing to face ridicule—from whom isn't entirely clear, though it seems to be academics—to write as he wishes. I write from the place I live: in exile, he says. It's hard to imagine the audience for this book. Chabon seems to want to debate English professors, but surely only his fellow comic-book lovers will be interested in his tirade. (Apr.)
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Chabon declares, “I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain. Period.” But of course there’s much more to his vivid and mischievous literary manifesto in 16 parts than that. A writer of prodigious literary gifts, Chabon brings the velocity, verve, and emotional richness intrinsic to the best of short stories to his exceptionally canny and stirring essays. Musing over the various literary traditions he riffs on in his many-faceted novels, he concludes, “All novels are sequels; influence is bliss.” Chabon zestfully praises the many allures of genre fiction and celebrates writers, among them Vonnegut and Byatt, who infuse their fiction with “the Trickster spirit of genre-bending and stylistic play.” He offers a fresh and affecting take on Arthur Conan Doyle and pays witty and provocative tribute to M. R. James, a seemingly serene British author of superb horror and ghost stories. Norse myths, Will Eisner, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road are all are interpreted with acuity and vigor. And then there are Chabon’s hilarious and puckish personal essays about his early writing misadventures and evolving sense of Jewishness. A writer so versatile he seems to be a master of disguises, Chabon provides invaluable keys to his frolicsome creativity and literary chutzpah in this truly entertaining collection. --Donna Seaman
Top customer reviews
If Michael Chabon set out to write a collection of essays which sum up the feelings he has towards literature as a whole. He succeeds. Interwoven with the messages of literary theory are his own personal experiences with literature and the works of fiction he is discussing.
From the first essay to the last there is something to enjoy in each one. Although some are more obscure (in subject matter not diction) they express a philosophy on what fiction should strive to be.
Specifically the first two essays of the collection and the one about fictions limits and believability are valuable sources for any student of literature and especially creative writing, they should be read along with Gary Lutz "The Sentence is a Lonely Place" and many other similar works which express a deep understanding of fiction, but read a simple love letters to books as a whole.
Now for why not five stars. For all its brilliance it still lacks in analysis. A few of the essays are of a lower quality than the others, which is to be expected of pretty much any collection of poetry, fiction or nonfiction. Overall to get a five star rating the book has to quite literally be among the best of everything I have read, and although this was a great read I would not give it a perfect score.
The book could be split into two parts, though the aforementioned theme cuts across all essays. The first 11 essays offer insight into maligned genres and their merits, but the next five shift gears into autobiographical telling of Chabon’s transformation into a writer. (The last essay, not present in some editions, could be seen as an epilogue to the entire work.) I’ll list the essays and give a hint about what each is about:
-“Trickster in a Suit of Lights”: This essay invites us to reconsider the connection between entertainment and literature, and in particular with respect to the modern short story.
-“Maps and Legends”: Here Chabon reflects upon the nature of a map and its analogy to the domain of fiction.
-“Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes”: Fan fiction is maligned, and not entirely without reason. Even when it achieves great popularity, it’s often bad (e.g. “Fifty Shades…”) However, Chabon correctly suggests that we consider fan fiction too narrowly, including only that which reinforces our notions. He offers a great example of a character, Sherlock Holmes, who launched a thousand fan fictions, some of which are masterpieces in their own right.
-“Ragnarok Boy”: Mythology often seems tired and cliché, but there are reasons such stories survive across ages. Chabon explores what it is in Norse mythology that makes it an ongoing font of inspiration for writers.
-“On Daemons & Dust”: For a while, YA was the only genre with rising sales--much to the chagrin of those who felt this might herald the rise of a real world idiocracy. In this essay, Chabon describes what it is about Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” series of fantasy books that pulls readers in—including the appeal of dark elements in stories.
-“Kids Stuff”: In this essay, Chabon considers the comic book and its evolution from kids’ stuff to a vast domain meant to appeal to a broad readership.
-“The Killer Hook”: This essay continues Chabon’s look at comic books, but through a specific example: “American Flagg!” a dystopian sci-fi comic book. Chabon proposes that “American Flagg!” spawned a new approach to comic book art and tone.
-“Dark Adventure”: This is about Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” Some topics are revisited, such as the appeal of dark and dystopian content. [For those unfamiliar, “The Road” is the story of a father and son wandering through a post-apocalyptic wasteland in search of some sort of stable community. McCarthy is the master of sparse prose, eschewing dialogue tags and maintaining a minimalist approach to his craft.
-“The Other James”: Here Chabon discusses the ghost story, using M.R. James’ story “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” as an exemplar.
-“The Landsman of the Lost”: Chabon discusses the comic strip work of Ben Katchor.
-“Thoughts on the Death of Will Eisner”: Eisner was a popular cartoonist, associated with such comic books as, “The Spirit.”
-“My Back Pages”: Here the book ventures into autobiographical territory as Chabon talks about his first dalliances with writing a novel.
-“Diving into the Wreck”: This continues Chabon’s telling of how he came to be a writer, and his early troubles in structuring a novel.
-“The Recipe for Life”: Here Chabon tells us about his introduction to Golems, a concept that would play an important role in one of his most influential works—an in the rest of the book. You’ll note the connection between fantastical devices and the telling of story that carries over from the first part.
-“Imaginary Homelands”: Chabon describes the role that is played by culture in forming a writer’s experience—both the culture one is living in and the cultural heritage that we each carry with us wherever we may roam.
-“Golems I Have Known”: This is one of the longer pieces and it presents the climax of Chabon’s tale of his transformation into a novelist. Golems as fictitious creatures built to facilitate certain truths are a central feature around which Chabon’s story is told.
-“Secret Skin”: [Note: This essay didn’t appear in the initial version of the book, and so your edition might not have it.] This essay invites the reader to reconsider the role that costumes and secret identities play for superheroes and how that need resonates with readers. In the process, this last essay sums up the reason why fantastical elements are so powerful in fiction.
There are only few graphics in the book, i.e. comic panels. Other than that there’s not much by way of ancillary matter, though there are recommended readings (oddly) interspersed within the index—rather than being a separate section.
I’d recommend this book for readers and writers. The essays are well-crafted and thought provoking.